International Arbitrator, Counsel, Consultant

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EQ in International Arbitrators: Elusive but Essential?

When I grew up, no-one really talked about emotional intelligence (EQ). My parents talked about how ‘bright’ people were and raw intelligence, exhibited in the form of esoteric comments, obscure references and exam success, seemed to be greatly prized. While an undergraduate at Cambridge I was in awe of the really clever people (I had a bad case of imposter syndrome during my time there).

Yet looking at my cohort in the twenty or so years that have passed since graduation, it is instructive to consider what qualities are needed to ‘succeed’ (and, of course, how success is defined is far from straightforward). Raw intelligence is not, in my experience, a very good indicator of success in life.

At a conference this week I was surprised to hear a distinguished international arbitrator say that the first thing he looks for in a chair candidate is emotional intelligence.. Academic success, experience and qualifications all came second to the need to choose a chair who could handle interpersonal relationships fairly and with empathy. I have felt for years that a chair’s key role is to manage the dynamics of the tribunal and interact appropriately and effectively with parties, witnesses and counsel. To do that well requires emotional intelligence.

Much of the research on developing and increasing EQ centres on managing stress and promoting openness. Anyone who has been involved in an international arbitration hearing will be aware that this is a stressful environment. The confidential nature of arbitration means that it is difficult to be open and transparent about cases. Nonetheless we can work on increasing our EQ by considering our emotions in this stressful environment and taking into account the stresses that others are under. Throughout an arbitration we can show empathy towards panel members, particularly where that panel member comes from a different background or generation to us. We should be highly courteous towards everyone involved in the proceedings. Setting a civil, proactive, polite and respectful tone in no way impacts the adversarial nature of the arbitration, but can lead to co-operation in document management, can reduce unnecessary objections and simply makes the whole proceeding more pleasant for everyone. Chairs should always be mindful of their body language and be inclusive and open in the way they conduct themselves. Being more emotionally intelligent will make you a better listener and more attuned to the messages parties, counsel and witnesses are transmitting, as well as a better manager of the personalities on the tribunal with you.

Those involved in international arbitrations are invariably bright, but may not always have the emotional intelligence to navigate the complex emotions in a high stakes international arbitration. The more we develop skills to address these soft skills, the better equipped we will be to run a smooth, efficient process. Memories of bad experiences endure far longer than good ones. As arbitrators, we have an obligation to make the arbitration process as painless as possible, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

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